Varisu DoP Karthik Palani: Even commercial cinema needs a visual signature

The cinematographer of Vijay's Varisu, who has carved his name as an interesting addition to the list of DoPs for big-budget big-ticket films, talks about his craft, his collaborations and more  
Varisu DoP Karthik Palani: Even commercial cinema needs a visual signature

Cinematographer Karthik Palani is a rare film personality. Despite being associated with some of the biggest films of 2023 like Vijay's Varisu and Prabhas' Adipurush, Karthik doesn't shy away from admitting the flaws pointed out by the audience. Be it the flashback portions of Vijay in Varisu or the trailer visuals of Adipurush, Karthik agrees that they weren't perfect. "To get a perfect result in Varisu's de-aging portions, we should have gone with the technology they used in Will Smith's Gemini Man. But being a family drama, and these portions only lasting for a couple of minutes, we chose to go with achievable alternatives. I understand that cinephiles aren't completely satisfied with the visuals, but there is also a section of the audience who overlooked these blemishes," he says.

Addressing the overwhelming criticism faced by Adipurush, Karthik states, "We are aware that the first trailer became troll material. But the post-production teams are working really hard to deliver a superior output with the theatrical cut and I can assure fans that the film is on track for a June 16 release." He once again points out that budget constraints play a huge part in the final result of the visuals. "Adipurush is a blend of both motion capture technology and live action, something along the lines of Planet of Apes and Jungle Book. We needed twice the budget of Adipurush to achieve that standard. So, we opted for indigenous technologies that could give us a nearly decent finish. Since we don't have any local references for the project we were careful in each of the steps and did elaborate pre-production. Every single day on the set was a learning experience."

From Karthik's statements, it is clear that cinematography cannot be a standalone process, and various departments like art, VFX artists, colour graders play a vital role in determining the visual quality of a film. But if the visuals go wrong, the blame is put squarely on the cinematographer. "Honestly, if I am letting myself feel good when I receive a compliment, I should also be ready to answer my audience when they point out the flaws.  But in cases where the setbacks are completely not on our end, I just feel bad for the ones raising the complaints. They are doing it out of unawareness, and I'm sure they would see things differently if they are acquainted with the basic dynamics of each department in cinema."

One would think that shooting for a commercial entertainer is an easy drill for a cinematographer. However, Karthik clarifies that even masala films need their distinct visual signature. "I would cite my mentor Thiru sir's work in Petta as an example. Despite being a pucca entertainer, the film had a unique visual style, which needs to come to the fore, otherwise, our work will go unnoticed." To enhance his visual style in Varisu, Karthik ensured that the costume and art departments were on the same page every single day. "Colours have the power to directly influence the emotion on screen, so we regularly discuss the requirements and expectations from each department to have the same vision."

One of the most-hyped moments of Varisu was certainly the single-shot dance sequence of Vijay from the Ranjithame number. Once again single-shot sequences are a different beast altogether and require utmost uniformity and compliance. In fact, Karthik reveals that the makers okayed the very first take of the song. "There were multiple rehearsals with the dancers and Vijay sir also did one trial before I started rolling the camera. But once I started shooting he aced the long dance sequence in a single take. What you see on the screen is exactly what he delivered in the first go."

Karthik, who shifted his base to Mumbai due to his Bollywood commitments, aims to work in all language films. Up next he will be joining hands once again with Prabhas for his film with director Maruthi. "The Prabhas-Maruthi film will be an out-and-out fun entertainer, completely in contrast to the serious films Prabhas sir is doing in the recent years," he describes.

The in-demand cinematographer says he didn't plan for any of these major opportunities. "Honestly, I am clueless on how I bagged so many big offers when there are several senior and talented DOPs around me. Life has been kind to me," he says adding, "I will continue to try to make sure my work stands out from the crowd and do as many different types of films as possible. As I said earlier, every day on the set is a learning experience for me." 

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